This selection of women’s writing does not claim to be exhaustive, but is an attempt to approach ‘women’s writing’ from a supra-national(ist), non-regionalist, and non-periphalist perspective of South Asia. We are not looking for national representatives here or even regionalist dissidents. That is why all the SAARC countries, to use a handy political formation, are not represented here equally.
We know of no other anthological treatment of women’s writing against the horizon of South Asia. What do we mean by South Asia? It is a salient horizon of interpretation and politics in the subcontinent, whose history has been violently delimited by the partitioning of national cultures and societies. While it may sound like another anodyne category to combat Orientalist ethnocentrism, such as ‘West Asia’, South Asia, we believe, it does offer a socio-historical vista which can be understood as an imaginary for writers of various political and temperamental hues. We are aware of the Orientalist implications of such categories as `civilisation’, but we do intend to claim, on behalf of the various articulations of this idea in the selections herein, a civilisational matrix within South Asia in which our chosen writers have located themselves: to critique this matrix, to reinvent it, and even to reject its narrow implications. Like the memorable upturned map of South Asia produced by the Nepal-based Himal magazine (whose masthead declares “South Asian”), these writers are engaged with some part of the same map to give an overturned understanding of South Asian social realities. The choice of writers from the ‘peripheries’ (the Indian north-east is a key example here) is the easy way of demonstrating this upturning – but both Mona Zote (Mizoram) and Temsula Ao (Nagaland) in our selection show that there is no expectedly pre-formed ground from which this periphery needs to speak of and to itself.
Why women writers? Hasn’t gender theory upturned the matrix of gender relations which can accommodate a range of plural subjectivities and identities? While only a few of the writers in our selection are writing in and of this century, the accumulation of women’s perspectives on historical processes which are now at least a century old (nation, history, community, the body and its experiences are some of the exemplary sites here) alerts us to the development of a writing and intellectual tradition that we must call ‘feminist’, and it may include men too. Due to the nature of women’s oppression in South Asia, abetted and endorsed by the nation-state, women’s writing, whatever its formal definitions, has thematically engaged the question of the nation and its boundaries. We interpret this notion of boundaries following some of our writers here: both as national-cultural outer limits as well as inner limits of political life in the nation. For example, the Pakistani writer Zaheda Hina resituates Tagore’s Kabuliwala (“Kumkum is doing fine”) as a third-generation narrative of recuperating the reality of South Asian continuities in the originary location of the former narrative: contemporary Afghanistan. Here we’re already beyond the cultural boundaries of South Asia as understood today, but perhaps well within the historical matrix which produced the sense of the subcontinent as a colonial category of imperial governance. Similarly, Kutti Revathi’s poems redo the conventional psychobiography of the citizen-subject in terms of desire and solitude. This gesture signals ‘women’s writing’ immediately, but must be understood in trying to work with subterranean traditions of lyricism, a political act when it tries to break the sentimentalist and/ or nostalgic modes of poetry writing in various subcontinental languages. The language of the body, from a Dalit writer, is also a border-crossing in the South Asian sense.
Another aspect of reinterrogating the geographical delimitation of South Asia is to propose the beginnings of imagery and imaginaries which disrupt the age-old association of women’s writing as genre(d) and gendered writing. This delimitation is taken up by our choice of several poets (almost half of our selection) because in the poetic realm the question of theme is itself up for scrutiny, elaboration or subtraction. Thus, the genre of love poetry is boldly opened up, sometimes ironically, sometimes over-eagerly, by writers like Taslima Nasreen (not spoken of as a poet normally) and Parveen Shakir (spoken of primarily as a love poet, without overtly political investments), pointing towards the continuity of traditions which are not necessarily run through national identifications, or even a stable sense of a woman’s self. Perhaps a new conception of the contemporary lyric will emerge if we re-read the work of Mona Zote (one of whose well-known pieces is ‘An Anti-Love Poem’).
Our selection ranges from non-contemporary writers (like Rashid Jahan, whose early death stopped short a literary and political career, which reads as contemporary now than as in her own time) to recently published ones (Phuritshabam, Soibam and Ningombam). This is undeniably an attempt to snapshot a history, a history for and of the present. This too must be remembered if we are not to celebrate a South Asian century of retrograde nationalisms and globalised identity celebrations, which it started as being. This history bears the marks of effortful writing against historical and psychological forces through which women’s writing first emerged as a category in the early twentieth century. Our larger contention is that women’s writing, the category and its constituents, may still provide new thinking and solutions to political and aesthetic deadlocks which a range of ‘post-ferninisms’ claim to diagnose and transcend.